Nikki Giovanni: The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 (HC 2003, Harper Perennial Modern Classics PB 2007)

“One ounce of truth benefits/ like ripples on a pond/ one ounce of truth benefits like a ripple/ on a pond …” – From a letter from poet Margaret Danner (1915-1984) to Nikki Giovanni, used by Giovanni as the title for her CD: Like A Ripple On A Pond, first released on vinyl in 1973

Having not too long ago finished reading Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (William Morrow/Harper  Collins, 2013), the latest poetry collection by the then 70 year old Nikki Giovanni (born 1943), in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, collecting seven volumes of poetry published over a fifteen year period, between 1968 and 1983 (of the five “Occasional Poems” added, one is from 1970, just four from the 1990s), we meet the young poet at twenty-five self-publishing her first volumes of poetry, Black Feeling Black Talk (1968) and Black Judgment (1968), soon reprinted and distributed by Broadside Press, followed by Re:Creation (Broadside Press, 1970).

These three slim collections of fiery ‘revolutionary’ poetry – Black Feeling Black Talk selling more than ten thousand copies in its first year alone, a remarkable number for a self-published volume – made Nikki Giovanni an instant star of BAM, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and beyond.

In Poem (For Dudley Randall), her publisher at Broadside Press, she describes herself as “a Revolutionary Black woman,” writing poems like The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro: “Nigger/ Can you kill/ …/ Can you kill a white man/ …/ Can you make your nigger mind/ die/ …”, A Short Essay of Affirmation Explaining Why (With Apologies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation), and Black Power (For All the Beautiful Black Panthers East)

The voice is softer in For Saundra and My Poem, lyrical in Nikki-Rosa and Knoxville, Tennessee, mischievous in Seduction: “Nikki, isn’t this counterrevolutionary …?”, and audacious in Ego-Tripping: “I was born in the congo/ I walked to the fertile crescent and built/ the sphinx/ …/ For a birthday present when he was three/ I gave my son Hannibal an elephant/ he gave me Rome for mother’s day/ …”, her tribute to Africa and the creativity and power of Black women.

And there are other tributes, to Rap Brown, Don L. Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gwendolyn Brooks, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone (The Genie in the Jar), Paul Robeson, Sr., a.o.

Celebrity poetics. Nikki Giovanni was not without her critics, even among BAM poets otherwise supportive of her work. Don L. Lee in the first of five volumes in the Broadside Critics series, Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s (1971), writes: “When the Black poet chooses to serve as a political seer, he must display a keen sophistication. Sometimes Nikki oversimplifies and therefore sounds rather naive politically.” And Dudley Randall opinioned: “Nikki writes rapidly, and sometimes carelessly." But “she can (also) write with originality and freshness.”

Criticism notwithstanding, poet and critic Evie Shockley in Renegade Poetics (University of Iowa Press, 2011) describes Giovanni and other poets of the 60s and early 70s as “epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos.”

Nikki Giovanni was a celebrity, established major writers of an older generation like James Baldwin, b. 1924, in A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (Lippincott, 1973), and poet Margaret Walker, b. 1915, in A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (Howard University Press, 1974), willing to sit down and converse with a young poet not yet thirty, Walker calling Nikki-Rosa – a poem of childhood remembrances: “Black love is Black wealth …” – for Giovanni’s ‘signature’ poem.  

A reviewer for the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation notes Nikki Giovanni’s “sophisticated use of vernacular speech,” Giovanni taking her poetry “to the people” through hundreds of public lectures and readings. And the several recordings of Giovanni reading/performing her poetry are an important part of her work, some, like Legacies (1976), released through Smithsonian Folkways.  

Truth Is On Its Way (1971), followed by Like A Ripple On A Pond (1973) – see epigraph above – were groundbreaking, Giovanni reading her poetry to gospel music performed by the New York Community Choir, introducing the album at a concert at the Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem before a crowd of some 1,500 people – partly in tribute to her beloved grandmother, Louvenia Watson, gospel music being something that her grandmother would listen to – , the album selling more than 100.000 copies in its first six months.

New publisher, new directions. By the early 1970s William Morrow had become the publisher of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. The shift in publisher, and titles such as My House (1972), The Women and the Men (1975), and Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978) – rather than Black Feeling/Black Talk/Black Judgment – tell us something about a change in direction and subject matter, Giovanni saying in an interview that she would not write any more ‘revolutionary’ poems.

Self-described as “a black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English,” teaching for years at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni had ‘lost’ her young poet’s voice. And even as Virginia C. Fowler, writing the introduction, a chronology and extensive notes on the poems in The Collected Poetry, argues that Giovanni had reached a new maturity, there can also be a certain lightweight, cotton-candy-fluffy quality to some of her “poems and not quite poems.”

She seems at her best in poems with an autobiographical element, like Legacies, Mothers (a tribute to her own mother), Conversation (a young woman from the north  talking to an old southern woman of her grandmother’s generation, both in turn being ‘uppity’), and Gus (for my father).

She still has a wicked sense of humor as in I Laughed When I Wrote This (Don’t You Think It’s Funny?): ”the f.b.i. came to my house three weeks ago/ one white agent one black (or I guess negro would be/ more appropriate) …,” ending with the black one throwing in the towel: “fuck you, nikki, he said.” And she can still be mischievous as in That Day: “if you’ve got the key/ then I’ve got the door/ …”, written to the rhythm of a song. Note also the topical and strongly political Atrocities.

Perhaps one explanation for Giovanni’s extraordinary popular appeal can be found in this quote from an interview by Virginia Fowler, reprinted in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni (University Press of Mississippi, 1992): “You try as a writer to put yourself into the other person’s position. Empathy. …we can’t experience everything. Experience is important, but empathy is the key.

The ‘lineless’ poem. With Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1983), and the five 'occasional' poems, Nikki Giovanni’s poetry took yet another turn with her “innovative use of a new ‘lineless’ poetic form in which word groups are separated from each other by ellipses rather than line breaks,” as described by Fowler, a book that echoes the political activism of her early work.  

This ‘apoetic’ form of essay-like poems serves her quite well in pieces like Hands: For Mother’s Day, Harvest (for Rosa Parks), Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis (October 16, 1970) – a broadside sold to raise money for Davis’s legal fees after her arrest by the FBI – , and But Since You Finally Asked (A Poem Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon).

Virginia Fowler, in her introduction to Collected Poetry offers an extended reading of Stardate Number 18628.190 (a poem written for the 25th anniversary issue of Essence magazine) and the quilt as a metaphor of the family’s – and by extension all African Americans’ – history and black love. The black woman’s creation of beauty out of discarded, ‘worthless’ bits of material:

“This is a summer quilt … log cabin pattern … see the corner piece … that was grandmother’s wedding dress … that was grandpappa’s  favorite Sunday tie … that white strip there … is the baby who died … Mommy had pneumonia so that red flannel shows the healing … This does not hang from museum walls … nor will it sell for thousands … This is here to keep me warm/ …”

And there are new tribute-poems, for Lorraine Hansberry, John Lennon, Billie Jean King, Phillis Wheatley, Robert F. Kennedy, Charles White, Martin Luther King, Jr. (again), the Isley Brothers of Lincoln Heights, a.o.

Advertisements in the back pages of the Collected Poetry for a number of new volumes of poetry published since 2003 assures us that they are “distinctly Nikki Giovanni, but different. Not softened, but more inspired by love, celebration, memories, and even nostalgia.”

But Giovanni has softened. And there is something irresistible about the voice and stance of the young poet giving Gemini (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971) the subtitle: “An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet.” Even as she tells Margaret Walker in the conversations mentioned above that ‘Nikki’ is a persona: “That’s not my life.” And elsewhere warning us not to read even Nikki-Rosa as too closely autobiographical.

NIKKI GIOVANNI, in 2005, was named as one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 ‘Living Legends’. She has been given seven Image Awards by the NAACP, one of America’s oldest civil rights organization, the key to more than two dozen American cities, and the Wikipedia 12 June 2020 list of her awards and other honors – some for her work as editor and books for children – is as long as your arm, including several lifetime achievement awards.

This year she will publish her 16th volume of poetry, Make Me Rain: Poetry and Prose, making her one of just a handful of African American poets publishing continuously for more than fifty years.